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At the movies
At the movies

Holloway was a high-school student in Lompoc in the late 1980s when that city/s drive-in closed. Its big screen, now dark, still looms high at the north end of town.

Her family still lives in Lompoc, but she believes their regular "date" at the drive-in is worth the drive to Santa Maria.

Another family, the McFauls, who live on Vandenberg Air Force Base, trekked to the Hi-Way Drive-In in a bright blue 1972 Chevrolet pickup. They sat in fold-out chairs, in the bed of the truck, wrapped in blankets, and munched on popcorn while they waited for the feature presentation to begin.

The family visits the theater once a month. Sometimes they bring a picnic, sometimes they visit the snack bar. With a one-and-a-half year old daughter, visiting a traditional movie theater is nearly impossible, explained Todd McFauls. But at the drive-in, it works.

The unique experiences these families enjoy at Santa Maria/s Hi-Way are quickly becoming one-of-a-kind events.

According to www.drive-ins.com, there were more than 5,000 operating drive-in theaters at the industry/s peak in 1958. Now, there are fewer than 500 operating drive-ins in the United States.

The Hi-Way opened in 1959. It was purchased by current owner, Bob Gran, in 1979. Gran owns eight theaters, including three California drive-ins. The Hi-Way is the only drive-in still operating in Santa Barbara County.

A visit to the Hi-Way makes it obvious why its regulars are hopeful it will be around for good. Watching a movie under the stars, in a venue that offers the charm of a past era 7 it/s a perfect night out.

The Hi-Way/s decor mixes modern with retro. Neon lights still adorn the sign out front, the

restroom markers and the snack bar. Old radio speakers sit atop poles in each parking spot, ready to be hooked onto the window ledge of a car full of movie watchers, although you can also listen on your car stereo. The snackbar is freshly painted, the parking lot is clean and the restrooms are spotless 7 if you visit them early in the evening.

The movies listed on the drive-in/s marquee are first-run. And besides, regardless of the movie playing, going to the drive-in is an experience in itself.

The gates open 30 minutes before the film starts (times vary depending on the time of year), and cars start rolling in right away, selecting the perfect spot, with SUVs, station wagons and pickups often situating themselves with their tailgates facing the big screen.

The parking lot, which can accommodate up to 550 cars, is built on a slant so that open tailgates don/t block anyone/s view of the screen, which measures 90 feet wide.

Families, dressed in sweatshirts and jeans, unload lawn chairs, blankets and picnic-style dinners. Pajama-clad kids scamper out of minivans, anxious to take a trip to the snack bar before the movie starts.

There, they find treats like nachos, pizza, burritos, popcorn, candy and soda 7 all offered at reasonable prices, especially when compared with those of mega-movie theaters. A kid/s pack, for example, costs ,3.75 for popcorn, candy and drink. The Hi-Way/s nachos 7 priced at ,3.25 7 have become a local favorite, said Gran, with some residents stopping by the theater just to buy nachos to take home.

Once the movie begins rolling, car radios are tuned to 92.1 FM, and some of the old-fashioned speakers installed next to each parking space are turned up.

A small room off the concessions area holds the equipment that makes the movie run. The large, water-cooled projector is bigger than those used in indoor theaters because it has to send out more light, explained Gran. An FM transistor radio makes for clear sound, even on those old-fashioned car-side speakers. Gran is planning to upgrade the system to provide an even clearer sound to moviegoers.

The www.drive-ins.com Web site claims new life has been breathed into the industry in the past 10 years. "With drive-ins being reopened and new ones being built, the drive-in industry is holding its ground," reads www.drive-ins.com, crediting the nostalgic atmosphere such venues offer with the resurgence.

Gran disagrees. "It/s over," he said, explaining that real estate is in too high demand for other development purposes, and too expensive for would-be drive-in owners to keep.

The Hi-Way/s high real estate value is evident from the numerous homes that now border the theater/s parking lot.

Several of the nearby homeowners are less than charmed by the mystique of the drive-in.

"Mr. Gran/s been a good neighbor, I/ll say that," said Wayne Buwalda, who lives on Rod Drive, next to the drive-in parking lot and adjacent to the alleyway that serves as its exit. Most of the movie screen is blocked from view by trees, but a corner of it is visible from the Buwalda/s living room window.

Noise is the biggest problem, and cars exiting through that alleyway 7 gunning their motors and blasting their stereos 7 cause the most, said Lynn Buwalda.

Local neighbors have also been bothered by patrons who overstay their welcome at the drive-in, arguing or talking loudly well past the end of the second show. A few Rod Drive residents have called the police to wrap up the parties.

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The Buwaldas and other neighbors in the Rod Drive cul-de-sac are also affected by noise created by the Sunday morning flea market, and by patrons who park in their neighborhood to walk in to the market, rather than pay the ,2 to get in.

Still, the Buwaldas appreciate Gran/s efforts to keep his neighbors happy, and they worry about what might take the place of the drive-in if Gran ever decides to sell the land.

"We could be hearing building trucks at 5 a.m.," said Lynn Buwalda.

Not likely anytime soon.

Santa Maria/s Hi-Way Drive-In, at least for now, is here to stay, offering Central Coast residents a unique experience complete with a taste of an era past.

Now if the theater/s loyal patrons could just tune it down on their way out …

Emily Welly can be reached at 739-2220 or ewelly@santamaria times.com.

SUPER SUNDAY FLEA MARKET:

The Hi-Way Drive-In is also host to the Super Sunday Flea Market, from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays.

Stay tuned for tomorrow/s feature on the flea market and how its proceeds help the movie theater to keep operating.

A NIGHT OUT:

The Hi-Way Drive-In Movie Theater is at 3085 Santa Maria Way, 1 mile south of Kmart. Double features are shown every day, year-round. The cost is ,6 per person, with kids ages 4 to 11 costing ,1. Call 937-9715 or 937-3515 for times and the movie schedule, which changes weekly.

A few tips for drive-in audience members: Turn down your lights as you drive through the lot, especially if you decide to leave between shows; and don/t forget blankets, as temperatures can drop dramatically after dark.

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